“Three-Card Trick”: A magician, outdone by a rival, attempts to reclaim their rightful glory. I’m afraid there’s no way to properly discuss this without thoroughly spoiling it, so caveat lector.
Our hero (or heroine) is a magician, and they were the toast of society last season for managing the “two card trick”. But now an upstart has managed the same trick with the additional complication of a third card, and our hero sets out first to uncover this rival’s secret, and then to claim it for themselves. Our hero has some choice descriptive words for their rival and everything associated with him; there’s no question that they’re biased, and their voice comes through with pitch-perfect clarity.
And what is the card trick in question? Well, it’s really ridiculously trivial; but I think it is this triviality that gives strength to the ensuing grotesquery. This is my third IF work by Chandler Groover, and, like the previous two, it is marvelously grotesque. I’m going to think of this as his trademark from here on.
[Edit: wait, he also did “Toby’s Nose”, didn’t he? I played that too, and it wasn’t particularly grotesque … never mind, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad.]
Spoiling it all now … SPOILERS, I SAID … our hero finds their way to place where the rival has hidden a trunk; they open it to find … horrors, this rival is fuelling that card trick with the cruelest and blackest of black magic! He’s turned his own grandmother into a sort of homunculus, a “ritual anchor” to whisper the secrets of the cards up to him!
Then our hero goes to their own hidden chest where they’ve done exactly the same thing with their own mother. I hadn’t quite finished articulating in my head the horror of the rival’s secret, so this new revelation was a double whammy, a great twist. On a second playthrough, though, I see it should not have come as a surprise: examining the rival’s ritual anchor, our hero remarks on him having used his grandmother–italics on “grand”–which is a subtle hint at what our hero considers more usual. (Of course, it’s possible to find and open our hero’s chest first, but what player will think to do that on a first playthrough?)
By itself, the revelation of How The Trick Was Done is merely horrifying, as is our hero’s callous attitude to it all. At this point, all we have is plain horror. But the card trick fueled by all this horror is, as mentioned ridiculously trivial. “Pick a card and I’ll guess what it is.” That’s it, plus a lot of dramatic grandstanding, and the fascination evinced by the audience is disproportionately awesome. That’s what all this esoteric “charting of leylines”, creation of ritual anchors, dark rituals and unspeakable acts leads to; and this element of the ridiculous is what turns the merely horrifying into the grotesque.
All right, so it’s a great story. How is it as an experience, or as a game?
Well, it’s pretty short and simple. At no point are we ever really at a loss for what to do. Presumably, one could get lost in the catacombs under the exhibition, but I think most IF players will figure it out pretty quickly, if they haven’t already figured it out before even discovering the existence of those catacombs. There’s a fixed sequence to the plot, but there’s also room for going off the beaten track; ultimately, this is a story that gently guides you to the finish, its puzzles intuitive enough to be taken for granted.
Rich, flavourful, with a lot of character, and it goes down smooth as oil. Like a glass of rich Madeira … or possibly Amontillado. For the love of God, Montresor!